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Anti-drone protest stopped outside Pakistani tribal belt

A protest motorcade led by Pakistani opposition figure Imran Khan has been stopped before entering the militant stronghold of South Waziristan. The protesters oppose the US drone war in the region.

Pakistani authorities on Sunday blocked a motorcade of thousands of peace activists from entering the semi-autonomous tribal region of South Waziristan, where the activists had planned to hold a rally against the US drone war.

The Pakistani authorities had blocked the highway leading to South Waziristan with shipping containers. But Agence France-Presse reported that some protesters removed the containers, allowing them to approach the town of Tank, where they scuffled with police. Tank is one of the nearest major towns to the border with South Waziristan, located in northwest Pakistan.

Army troops posted at the border eventually told the protesters that they could not enter South Waziristan due to safety concerns. Washington frequently targets South Waziristan with remote-controlled drone strikes, claiming that the region is a stronghold for Islamist militants who launch cross-border attacks against international forces in Afghanistan.

"Police delayed us for four hours so it was getting late and dark," Shafqat Mehmood, a spokesman for Khan's Movement for Justice Party (PTI), told Agence France-Presse. "The army told us not to go into Waziristan because lives could be in danger."

"We had already made our point to the international media," Mehmood added. "Globally, our message was conveyed, so we should not go ahead and put lives at risk."

Rally held near Waziristan border

The motorcade had set off from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, on Saturday and drove some 12 hours to the town of Dera Ismail Khan, where the protesters spent the night. Activists from the American anti-war group Code Pink and the British legal advocacy organization Reprieve also took part in the motorcade.

The activists and protesters, led by Imran Khan, had originally planned to hold the rally against the US drone war in the town of Kotkai inside South Waziristan. But they decided instead to stage their demonstration in Tank after being blocked from entering the tribal belt by Pakistani troops. The American participants had turned back before reaching Tank, saying they had achieved their aims.

Pakistan's ex-cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan, center, is surrounded by his supporters as he arrives to lead what organizers are calling the peace march, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012. Hundreds of Pakistanis, joined by dozens of American activists, set off Saturday on a motorcade march to protest against U.S. drone strikes, hoping to reach a militant-riddled Afghan border region that has been the focus of many such attacks. (Foto:AP/dapd)

Khan has criticized the US drone campaign and accused Islamabad of not doing enough to stop it

Agence France-Presse estimated that some 15,000 people turned out to greet the motorcade in Tank.

"The drones are inhumane," Khan, a former cricket star, said during the rally in Tank. "Are these people not humans? These humans have names - drone attacks are a violation of human rights."

Khan also criticized the Pakistani government for not taking concrete steps to stop the drone strikes. Islamabad publically criticizes Washington's drone campaign as a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty that breeds anti-Americanism and extremism.

Khan has faced criticism that the motorcade is an attempt to profile his political party in the run up to Pakistani elections in 2013.

The Britain-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which tracks drone strikes, estimates that between 1,232 and 1,366 people have been killed since the strikes began in 2004. Between 474 and 884 of the casualties are civilians, the organization reports.

slk/jm (AFP, dpa, Reuters)